Friday, April 19, 2024

Why Hiring 3 Engineers Is A Lot Harder Than Hiring 300?

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India has among the largest IT workforce globally, and hires several hundreds of thousands of engineers annually. India graduates millions of students, which is among the highest number of “qualified” engineers each year. High supply, high demand. So it must be easy to hire those 3 engineers we are looking for. Right?


While it might be relatively easier to hire larger numbers given that we have such a large pool of graduating engineers available each year, the same logic unfortunately doesn’t scale down! The ease of hiring is inversely proportional to the number of unique hires to be done. This is because when you are hiring in hundreds, you are basically hiring “labor” – engineers who have near-entry-level proficiency of run-of-the-mill mass-market skills (imagine all of them needing to know textbook Javascript or classroom SQL, etc.) combined with the ability to solve low-level problems (i.e. basically responding to a “ticket” in Jira, e.g. fixing a UI bug in the website, or making some enhancement to a payroll application, etc.) under instructions in an assembly-line fashion. In short, we are referring to everything that a “knowledge worker” should NOT stand for – a fungible human resource!

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On the other hand, when you are hiring in single-digits, you are essentially hiring “talent” – those who have advanced levels of niche skills combined with a very high ability to work on their own in an ownership manner. Think of Navy SEALs or equivalent commandos. Think of prohibition agent Eliot Ness working with his small group of elite lawmen going after Al Capone and his gang in The Untouchables. Think of a Paul Buchheit creating Gmail in just one afternoon, ramped up only to dozen-odd team when Google decided to launch it. Think of a Nikhil Kumar and his team that built BHIM app in just 3 weeks. Now think how hard it would be to hire them?

Tathagat’s Law of Hiring Effort: “Ease of hiring is inversely proportional to the number of similar jobs being hired for.”

Let me explain.

Suppose I need to hire 300 engineers on a project, or a business unit, or even an org (or whatever else you want to call it!). In high probability, I have a standard list of “skills” they all need to have because they will be essentially doing same or similar kind of routine work in a large team, i.e. by and large fixing bugs, releasing patches, making enhancements, etc. I could subject them to a standardized test and if they score, say, 80% or more, then they are in. My average team size, for all I know, might be ~200 or ~300 engineers in some lights-on work, where by nature, the work requires following a standardized process to work on the “ticket” and check-in the code. This is not a “1.0” (is perhaps more like a version 4.7.2), nor does it possess the inherent risk of creating NTTW (New To The World) product or service. At most, we are talking of a derivative. That is, by and large, of course, exceptions notwithstanding. Yes, there might be a what I call as “volume complexity”, but surely not “value complexity”. I call this class of workers as “labor”, and they are literally available a dime a dozen!

Tathagat’s Corollary of Labor Hiring “Hiring 300 engineers is far easier than hiring 3!”

On the other hand, when you are highly selective and extremely choosy in hiring just 3 engineers, you are, by definition, almost looking for rocket scientists and neurosurgeons. Contextually, it is extremely likely that you are hiring for a small elite team of just 5 or 7 engineers and hence you need rocksolid engineers. Perhaps you are building the next Twitter, or the next Uber or the next Cisco, or even better…the “first something”! And you need the talent that has the gumption to walk on burning coals and come out smiling. You need them to be a self-starter and someone who isn’t shy of sticking their neck out. For all you know, they might not always have all the required tech skills, but does that really matter? To overcompensate for lack of what is “unknown unknown”, they posses a highly evolved critical thinking mindset and a problem solving system that gives them the courage to walk into the toughest situation and come out shining (along with the scars to show for it!). No, those folks don’t grow on trees. They are not your average mass-scale labor. They are your talent, and they are very rare.

First of, that is “1% market”. They are not excited by the boring routine problems. They want to solve 1% problems. They are good, and they know it, and they have stuff to show that they are good. Some of them might well be on the paths to become legends in future…

Secondly, chances are very high that another half a dozen companies (read “well funded”) are also chasing that 1% talent. If you are slow, you will be left behind.

Thirdly, as much as you are hiring them, they are also hiring you! Don’t expect them to passively accept whatever you tell them. In fact, if they think your hiring process was meh, they might lose interest – they want to win a hard fight, not a walkover. If your story is not tight, they just won’t look at you.

Fourthly, the 1% talent marketplace is a high-stakes table. Since there are not too many players here, the stakes simply go higher. So, if you want a 1% talent but only willing to pay for a 20% market, then you should count yourself out.

Tathagat’s Corollary of Talent Hiring “Hiring 3 engineers is a lot harder than hiring 300!”

So, what does it really mean? For one, hiring is not a scale-free competency. Simply because someone has hired hundreds of engineers in the last job means nothing if you need to hire just a handful of them. On the contrary, it might actually be a disqualification. Apart from the capability, it simply needs a different mindset to operate in the “vital few” talent market vs the “trivial many” labor market. And finally, if the company’s leadership is not quite bought into the diseconomics of talent hiring, they might be in it for a long time to come!

And hopefully you also finally understand why you are not able to hire just those 3 engineers while your neighbor LargeCo is able to hire 300 without a sweat!




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